Monday, June 26, 2006


To Believe or Not to Believe
By Thomas Riggins

With all the talk of Red State religious reaction and the Republican-Evangelical alliance, I thought it time to bone up on Theology. A good place to start is David F. Ford’s Theology: A Very Short Introduction all the information you will ever need (unless you’re born again) packed into 175 pages. Anyway, critics of Marxism have often taken to calling it a type of religion-- a secular religion-- so maybe this book will reveal if there are any parallels. I don’t myself think Marxism is a religion, but that is not to say that some of the actions of the ultra-left don’t confuse the issue. This book, by the way, is basically about Christian theology.

We are informed early on that there are five different ways to practice this discipline (based on the work of Hans Frei). The first way (the order is arbitrary) is to take some current philosophical position and use it to explain and interpret the Bible. Right-wing Evangelicals won’t go for this unless they want to explain the Bible in terms of the Republican national platform instead of vice versa. I can see using Marxism in this way, however. That is, to explain the Bible in terms of class struggle, false ideological reflections of consciousness based on the primitive production processes of nomads, etc. This type of theological endeavor approaches religion from the outside. Ford considers this an extreme position to take.

Another extreme position, he tells us, is to interpret everything in terms of "classical" Christianity. We are talking about a "fundamentalist" position. Interestingly, Ford brings up the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein in this context. Wittgenstein’s notion of "language games" is discussed. Let me explain. Just as Chess is a game with a set of rules-- to play Chess you must follow the rules, so you can look at Fundamentalism as a language game (this is not how fundamentalists look at it). The game of Fundamentalism has as its rule "the Bible has to be defended as always right and correct about everything." To be a fundamentalist is to use this rule to interpret everything going on in the world about you. An atheist can play this game if she wants to, anybody can. A Wittgensteinian would also see Marxism as a language game. The rules of the Marxist language game are to explain things using the labor theory of value from Das Kapital plus Lenin’s views on party building, revolution and imperialism (if you are playing the Marxist-Leninist game). There are variations on this game--i.e., the Trotsky game, the Mao game, etc. Marxists won’t accept this philosophy, of course, but maybe it has heuristic value.

After discussing these "extreme" positions, Ford comes to three other types which he calls "mainstream." One of these is illustrated by the theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). He took Existentialism as a model and used it to explain what he took to be the deepest meaning of the New Testament. Here we take a modern philosophy which is relevant to how (some) people attempt to understand life and use it to make sense of the Bible. This is very academic and has no broad mass following. The other two kinds of theology are also academic. This differs from the first type because it is inside Christianity, as it were, and not approaching it from the outside. While Marxism can use Christianity in the first type, it would be Christianity using Marxism in this type. By the way, Liberation Theology was a popular non-academic example of this type of theology (in my opinion, Ford does not discuss it.)

The next type is called by Ford "correlation" theology-- practiced by Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Here we try to correlate Christian ways of thinking and doing things with other systems as ways to enhance dialog and understanding. This is something Muslims, Jews and Christians should be doing. Marxism amd Liberation Theology could also play a role in this type of thinking.

Finally, the last type discussed by Ford, is a milder form of fundamentalism. That is to say, it assumes the basic truth of Christianity but is interested in the community of Christians and how they relate to other traditions. It differs, it seems , from fundamentalism in being more liberal and open minded and not so 100% literal. Ford suggests that Karl Barth (1886-1968) exemplifies this type. It should be noted that these types are not all mutually exclusive and that a Marxist outlook may be compatible (at least politically) with all but those associated with fundamentalism.

There is a chapter on Jesus Christ which is very revealing as far as the status of theology as a science goes. The point of this chapter is to try to answer the following question: "is the historical probability of the testimony to Jesus in the New Testament sufficient to sustain the plausibility of the Jesus Christ of Christian faith?" For Marxists this boils down to what is the plausibility that a person can walk on water. If you can believe that you can believe anything.

Ford goes over the Biblical account of the life of Jesus and concludes that it is "not falsifiable"-- which is very different from "its capable of proof."

Ford also reads the gospel with a 21st century sensitivity to political correctness. The New Testament is very clear in portraying Pontius Pilot as not wanting to kill Jesus. He finds no fault with him, washes his hands, etc., "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said His blood be on us, and on our children." Matthew 27:24-25.

For the politically correct David Ford, who does not see to it, this becomes: "It was the Romans who condemned and crucified him as a rebel because of the political threat." Anyone can read the New Testament in any way one likes.

The life of Jesus is "not falsifiable" but history is not the issue. When you read about Jesus in the Bible you are reading testimonies of what his followers believed and this will "challenge readers in far more radical ways than could a set of verified facts." What use have we for the facts?

The conclusion I come up with after reading this book is, as a Marxist, it is a waste of time to argue about religion (there are no verified facts so what's to argue about) and time is better spent trying to get people to take an interest in the problems facing all of us with respect to the exploitation and suffering all around us and that needs to be addressed by progressive political involvement.

David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2000.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Aaffairs and can be reached at

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